Threat to Democracy is a Threat to Pakistan


From Left to Right, Ms. Aasiya Riaz, PILDAT, Dr. Akbar Zaidi, Executive Director, Institute of Business Administration (IBA), Mr. Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, President, PILDAT, Mr. Ammar Ali Jan-Activist and Mr. Bilal Gillani, Executive Director, Gallup Pakistan addressing PILDAT’s roundtable on potential threats to democracy

Democracy in Pakistan faces a number of threats but enjoys widespread public support. Any and every threat to democracy is a threat to Pakistan. This was concluded at a PILDAT Roundtable Discussion on International Day of Democracy held to discuss potential threats facing democracy in Pakistan.

Speakers of the session were: Mr. Bilal Gilani, Executive Director, Gallup Pakistan, Mr. Ammar Ali Jan, Academician and Activist and Dr. Syed Akbar Zaidi, Academician and Activist and Executive Director, IBA. Mr. Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, President PILDAT kickstarted the discourse and Ms. Aasiya Riaz moderated the discussion.

Presenting an overview on what does national polling data suggest about Pakistani citizens’ views on democracy, Mr. Bilal Gilani, Executive Director Gallup Pakistan said that 3 in 5 Pakistanis hold the opinion that democracy is better than all other political systems. A majority of Pakistanis also believe that freedom of speech, free elections, and equal rights are present in the country. Even though a majority, 63% are confident that the civilian government can govern the country, a large percentage does not have confidence in their economic management and law enforcement and in reducing corruption. He said that increasing turn-out in Pakistan shows greater trust in the democratic process. He pointed out that these appear as good indicators but there is a competitor to democratic set up readily available and has very high support in Pakistan. When asked, people still show high support for military and technocratic governments. Trust in judiciary is also on the rise. Public perception of politicians has not improved and 81% of Pakistanis believe that people enter politics for gains in power and influence, which is a threat to democracy. When asked from people, they believe that economic inequality, corruption, fraud, and foreign influence are greatest threats to democracy in Pakistan.

Avenues for expression of the will of the people are necessary for democracy, said Dr. Ammar Ali Jan. Unlike the Arab world, democracy has been part of the conversation in our region since the 19th century where democracy was acknowledged as a preferred system but was never made available until people were fully ready. The contradiction is that state believed it had to prepare citizens for democracy. The same colonial mindset has continued in Pakistan. Pakistan, he said, has been a part of the war calculus since 19th century. Since political economy is so intertwined with conflict that full democracy is never allowed. Primary category used in war is that of the friend and enemy. When same logic is applied to domestic politics, same categorization is used for political opponents starting with Ms. Fatima Jinnah and going on to Mr. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Ms. Benazir Bhutto, Mr. Nawaz Sharif and now to Mr. Imran Khan. One has to understand democracy in Pakistan as scripted democracy where civilian government is facilitated in power but falls out of favour as soon as it deviates from the written script. Quoting UNDP report on inequality, he said that we have created a system where elite privileges are 4 times more than what is allocated to the poor making Pakistan a welfare state for the elite. It is these ruling elite that exclude people from the system. The magnitude of inequality is providing fertile ground for populism in Pakistan.

Speaking at the roundtable discussion, Dr. Akbar Zaidi said that threats to democracy are no longer potential but are very real. He said that he has always opposed the role of military in politics or commercial spheres of the country on principle. Pakistan’s democracy has suffered from hegemony of military in politics but this has started to change in 2007 when other actors began to appear on stage. He believed that today, higher judiciary has become a bigger threat to democracy. He also believed that despite many flaws, Mr. Imran Khan is the biggest democrat and has done more for democracy in the past 4 months by mobilising citizens than any other leader before him.

Discussants who joined the roundtable discussion included Ms. Irfana Yasser, Planning and Broadcast Journalist, BBC Urdu, Ms. Arifa Noor, Senior Analyst Dawn News, Dr. Ayesha Younas, Assistant Professor, School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid e Azam University, Brigadier (Retd.) Rashid Wali Janjua, Director Research, Islamabad Policy Research Institute, Mr. Almas Naqvi, Senior Correspondent, Daily Dunya, Dr. Muhammad Asif Khan, HOD, Department of Law, NUST, Mr. Nazeer Mahar, Democracy Practitioner, Mr. Kaiser Ishaque, Assistant Resident Representative, UNDP, Ms. Imaan Mazari, International Law Researcher and Mr. Tahir Khalil, Bureau Chief-Islamabad, Jang.

Kickstarting the discussion on threats facing democracy in Pakistan, Ms. Imaan Mazari said that we need to understand history to understand democracy. Military chose to dismember East Pakistan than give them their right to self-determination. Today, Balochistan is suffering from a similar situation where citizens who criticise become missing persons or are brutally murdered. Same is happening in KP. The journey from hybrid regime to controlled democracy is all part of the planned attack on democracy. While we have a parliament, national decisions are taken in the GHQ. Defence expenditure continues to be the biggest chunk of our budget while we have not become more secure as a country. Impunity of those who have continued to derail democracy is the biggest threat to democracy, she added.

Rana Kaiser Ishaque said that ecosystem of democracy has great pitfalls. Inequality and injustice is a continuing cycle which will worsen with recent floods. Growing polarization in society is another threat and inequality is feeding into that polarization. UNDP’s Global Human Development Report 2022 has concluded that there is global uncertainty due to political factors, regional conflicts, pandemic and unemployment, etc. Even before pandemic, 6 out of 7 people globally felt insecure about their future. 40% people globally surveyed are suffering from stress and anxiety of some kind. The Economist has recently published an analysis that historically uprisings are fuelled by food and fuel inflation. This is another potential threat of in Pakistan. He also identified the phenomenon of fake news, disinformation and misinformation feeding prejudices of the people as a threat to democracy. Young people are especially susceptible to this threat. Upon conclusion he quoted from the book How democracies die that in the absence of mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance democracies come under threat and it is also applicable to Pakistan.

Ms. Irfana Yasser said that a situation has developed in Pakistan where one political party is using social media actively while other parties are stuck in the era of 1990s. The party is building its narrative through all sort of sources and as a result is contributing to misinformation and fake news. The other mainstream parties are almost clueless on how to use digital engagement to attract voters.

Mr. Almas Naqvi said that lack of democratic culture in political parties and lack of institutional capabilities are holding democracy back in Pakistan.

Dr. Ayesha Younis said that it is important to analyse democracy both as a process whereby elections are held and public representatives are elected as well as how democratic we are and the degree of democracy we have. It is analysing both well and presenting this in public domain that can meaningfully drive improvements in our democratic governance.

Ms. Arifa Noor said that judiciary has taken up the role that President had prior to 2007. In a similar fashion, judiciary can only play the role it is carrying out because military is standing with judiciary. Even though judiciary has not given required relief on missing persons cases, the hearing of their cases by the judiciary has provided some avenue to the media for reporting on the issue and of creating awareness of the problem in the country. She questioned the logic behind proposals to reduce political options and have national government. Political choice available in the shape of different political parties is crucial for democracy. Opposition forced the PTI to get its act together in managing the pandemic. On PTI’s dominance of social media, she believed that the party has used avenues available to it to reach people to create its niche in the presence of other parties. PTI is where PML-N was in the 1980s. Parties become stagnant with time. The PPP has decided that media is always hostile to it but it does not affect their popularity in Sindh. The PML-N always engaged with mainstream media and more but now can’t see beyond mainstream media. She argued that the emergence of the PTI is not worse but better for democracy as Pakistan should not look to become a one party system like Bangladesh, India and Turkey.

Hafiz Tahir Khalil that democracy is the art of the possible. Democracy is both representative and accountable. However, to be fully representative, our democratic system has to represent the marginalised but here we see that usurpers represent the marginalised. Representation of other marginalised sections of society is needed in our parliament and assemblies. Indian president has the authority to appoint members from vast and varied professions and communities in the Indian Rajya Sabha but we have not used the option of seats allocated for technocrats well in this regard. Transparency and good governance are essential for representative democracy but our political parties have neither internal democracy nor they allow dissent or provide space to youth in the political process. To move forward, we must check role of money in politics and to use mutual respect, tolerance and dialogue to strengthen democracy.

Mr. Muhammad Asif Khan said that institutions have not developed in Pakistan which is hurting our democratic governance. We are following an archaic system of appointing civil servants without changing any criteria and anyone who passes exam gets selected. As a result, people who don’t know law serve in police and those with no knowledge of international affairs are appointed in the foreign office. He also said that our Constitution is not inclusive and was made in haste and should be revisited.

Brig. (Retd.) Rashid Wali Janjua said that democratic deficit is a consequence of two main factors: conceptual and structural. Conceptual factors include messianic complex in military, weak expertise of civilians parties and society’s weak democratic impulse. Structural factors include disciplined force, high-threat environment and lack of effective oversight. The Garrison state theory says that states confronted with conflict have the propensity to become garrison states. Political parties pander to notions of democracy but do not wish to share powers and resources from provinces to local government level. Biggest threat to democracy is lack of public trust in parties and lack of internal democracy in parties. Populism is another threat, he believed.

Mr. Nazeer Mahar said that military has failed in its assessment and each one of its electoral manipulations since 1970s have failed. There are set notions in society that landlords will always get elected but there is little empirical evidence for this in electoral results. In fact, independent voting has increased in Pakistan. To understand real issues of democracy, we need to strike a right balance through deeper analysis. There is a need to unpack fully how much lack of internal democracy in parties or political behaviour impacts our governance.

Participants who joined the discussion included Mr. Asim Zaman, Research Associate, School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid e Azam University, Ms. Nausheen Yousaf, Political Correspondent Geo News, Mr. Zaman Khan, Secretary General Hakook e Khalq Movement, Ms. Rabina Iqbal, Advocate Islamabad High Court, Mr. Javed Shahzad, Chief Reporter Islamabad, Ausaaf, Mr. AD Khan, Correspondent, Bol News, Ms. Areesha Sagheer, Reporter, Hum News and Mr. Muhammad Waqar, Correspondent, Jang.

Discussants and Participants at PILDAT roundtable discussion

Dr. Akbar Zaidi speaking at the roundtable
Ms. Aasiya Riaz, PILDAT speaking at the roundtable

Ms. Imaan Mazari, International Law Researcher
Mr. Kaiser Ishaque, Assistant Resident Representative, UNDP
Ms. Irfanna Yasser, Broadcasting and Planning journalist, BBC Urdu
Mr. Almas Naqvi, Sr Correspondent, Daily Dunya
Dr. Ayesha Younas, Assistant Professor, School of Politics and IR, QAU
Ms. Arifa Noor, Sr. Anchor/Analyst, Dawn News
Dr. Muhammad Asif Khan, HOD-Department of Law, NUST
Mr. Nazeer Mahar, Lead Expert, Follow up Report on 2018 EU EOM Recommendations
Brigadier (Retd) Rashid Wali Janjua, Director Research, Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI)